Straight Outta Compton (2015)

★★★★

Straight Outta Compton PosterDirector: F. Gary Gray

Release Date: August 14th, 2015 (US); August 28th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell

Full disclosure: I’m not a big late-80s/early-90s hip hop fan. Before F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, I likely would have associated the letters “N.W.A.” with a professional wrestling promotion as opposed to anything of the rap variety. But cinema is a great enlightenment tool and here I am, enlightened, and all the better for it. The film takes us all the way back to 1986, to Compton, California and to the inception of one of the most influential groups in music history. Not that I know anything, but to me Straight Outta Compton plays like a film worthy of the N.W.A.’s hefty legacy.

It is primarily centred around the three most pivotal members: Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (Jackson O’Shea Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). We meet the former surrounded by guns and drugs, and the latter hopes and dreams. Despite its obvious pitfalls — impending violence and police sirens — the Compton hip hop culture proudly wears an aspirational quality that bellows from the screen; this is especially true during musical interludes, though these aren’t interludes as much as natural story progressions. And it is this underbelly of aspiration that resonates universally, beyond hip hop. What we have is a piece that serves its real life protagonists honourably by dismissing glorification and highlighting the relatable traits they foster.

This feels like the rise of the N.W.A., not an imitation. Every performance is authentic, from Jackson O’Shea Jr. who is more than just his father’s uncanny lookalike, authoritative and assured, to Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the rebel of rebels turned sympathetic figure. Mitchell sieves through the aggravating side of his character in order to trap something really genuine. It helps that the focus is not always on Eazy-E; we spend significant time with Dr. Dre, played with a terrific sense of roundedness by Corey Hawkins, and with Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, a businessman with dollar signs in his eyes. This is a cast rich in talent, both raw and honed, backed up by strong supporting players (R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight; Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. as MC Renn and DJ Yella, respectively).

As is always the case when a biopic hits the stands, much has been said about historical fudgings. Most notably, the non-reference to Dr. Dre’s violent outbursts against women. That’s a fair quarrel, though I can only judge what I see. The guys on-screen are absolutely not angels, nor do they hold themselves to such a moral standard. They partake in overblown confrontations — the camera makes a point to zoom in on a tightly-grasped glass bottle during one conflict. Women are not treated well, often as little more than instruments to use (this does change upon the arrival of maturity). And bouts of in-fighting gain frequency as the group gains success. You believe in the bond between the members, but you also recognise the potential for bloated egos to overrule harmony. So when bloated egos overrule harmony, it’s not a shock.

The most charged relationship Gray’s outing explores, though, is not one between individual artists, but a collective one between all artists and the police. Our real world news media has been awash with the pitiful treatment, and worse, of black men in particular by US police officers, and this exceptionally tense relationship is reflected from the word go. For instance, we see Dr. Dre on the receiving end of a brutish arrest for no apparent reason: “I was literally just standing there… that’s it.” Police brutality is obviously an issue with complex ties to the rise of the N.W.A., therefore the extent to which it is featured here does seem justified and in many ways inevitable, but that inevitability does not diminish its impact at all.

Cop cars stalk the group constantly; they appear from nowhere almost to the point of parody, their lights flashing and alarms blaring. Conversations between officer and victim cement the shoddy use of power structures — one side inflicting orders with no real basis, the other side angrily demanding an explanation. This amounts to a handful of on-the-nose interactions (“You can’t come down here and harass my clients because they’re black”) but then these interactions are probably wrapped up in absolute truth, which makes the whole saga all the more infuriating for us folks on the side of those being unlawfully discriminated against.

On a lighter note, at two and a half hours long the film advances with unrivalled exuberance. This is all Gray’s direction; you can feel it. Be it in establishing compelling dialogues or encouraging us to head-bop along, the director never lets up: we zip through recording sessions and into electric live performances, and the spotlight evolves from a lone studio glow into an array of kinetic beams. The best example of this vitality is in an unrelenting diss sequence during which the picture cuts between the disser dissing and the dissees listening. It is a track that stems from a dispute based on artistic and financial integrity, another industry strand the piece explores in some detail.

It’s not as earnest as something like Crazy Heart or as indebted to soul-searching as a Walk the Line, but Straight Outta Compton thrives on the strength of its key figures and the scintillating, abrasive music they make. For someone like me, a representative of those uninitiated in the musical culture on display, this character-centric approach affords the film a grounding from which to flourish. Good characterisation, good storytelling — these are two of the tenets of good cinema, and Straight Outta Compton revels in both. That makes it good cinema.

Straight Outta Compton - Corey Hawkins

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Trumbo (2016)

★★★

Trumbo PosterDirector: Jay Roach

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); February 5th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren

Trumbo is about two things: the trials and tribulations of a successful screenwriter, and the cultural acceptance of an uncommon political discourse. We spend time examining both, but never truly get into the meaty centre of either. Said screenwriter is Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a creative caught up in a battle of black-and-white politics; it’s us versus them and US versus Russia. “The Blacklist was a time of evil,” he bemoans, and it probably was. Fighting against tonally light content, we don’t see that evil.

It is mid-20th century America and Hollywood has been torn in two, ambiguous grey areas nowhere to be seen (certainly not in this filmic incarnation). There are those with ties to Communism and ideals driven by wealth distribution, none more so than the aforementioned Trumbo. Then there are the others — studio heads, directors, actors — who bear defiant patriotism, unwavering in their hatred for the Communist agenda. The turbulent ripples become clear, crossing the personal-professional divide almost instantly: “[Trumbo is] among us. Sure as hell ain’t one of us,” says one director, and he ain’t referring to movie guilds.

Director Jay Roach employs newsreels that lambast Communism by throwing the words “radical” and “anti-democratic” around. Trumbo himself, though grouchier as the film wears on, is a beacon of idealism: the imaginative writer, accepting, and willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those on the other side of the fence. When he’s not doing that, Trumbo is storytelling — we see him awaken in a bathtub and pick up his pen as if he hadn’t stopped for a snooze break. He ponders thoughts before his typewriter, smoke clouding his headspace, evoking a sense of artistic megalomania. Cranston plays him well, naturally manoeuvring between cartoonish cheer and patchy introversion.

The movie moves with welcome momentum, but there is a lack of bite in each narrative stroke. That the rabble of screenwriters charged with Communist associations are, at worst, fairly wealthy white males ought to be more of an issue given the film’s discriminatory context, but that is only brushed over during a brief conversation between Trumbo and fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) — the civil rights movement becomes a meagre agent of friction between father and daughter, forgotten after a heart-to-heart. In fairness, unfair haranguing by Supreme Court magistrates does show us how little progress we have made in terms of political jousting and partisan stubbornness.

You would think the criminalisation of the Hollywood Ten (as the writers are collectively known) would have a creative impact on the film industry, but we don’t really see any immediate consequences. Irrespective of politics, incarceration means a loss of talent and that loss is skimmed over even after Trumbo and co. are released from prison and subsequently blacklisted. The workaround is fairly obvious: sell one’s work under somebody else’s name. Trumbo does just that, penning and then passing on the critically acclaimed Roman Holiday (1953) to his untainted screenwriter pal Ian McLellan Hunter (a typically effective Alan Tudyk).

It’s when he decides to work with B movie studio exec Frank King (John Goodman) as a script curator that we see some sort of occupational impact — these films are shoddy, far from Trumbo’s intellectual norm. As King puts it, “Quality minimum; quantity maximum”. Goodman’s arrival ushers in a Coen touch, a bout of heightened satire and craziness, and probably the film’s best moments too (a baseball-bat-wielding Goodman is a sight to behold). This stuff is enjoyable, though you do get the sense the filmmakers are too caught up in moulding an accessible film to carve out something significant.

What this means for the characters, and Trumbo especially, is a lack of piercing emotional rigour during moments of plight. Forced to strip off all of his clothes, Trumbo’s entry into jail is clearly demeaning and disheartening, however it should be tinged with so much more emotional verve. But up until that point there is no gravitas urging you to sympathetically invest in the scribe. Trumbo’s only emotional ties are those the film does not really have to earn: to his family, including daughter (Elle Fanning) and wife Cleo. Fanning shows spark and in spite of her fairly thankless role — wife and mother — Diane Lane manages to imbue Cleo with a dose of likeability.

Helen Mirren channels her inner Rita Skeeter as Hedda Hopper, the media’s harshest Communist critic. “Bad box office? No, bad politics,” she says, more concerned with political allegiance than money which, given her job relies on a thriving Hollywood, is quite something. John Wayne is arguably her biggest ally from within the industry, played here with brutish aplomb by David James Elliot. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, other big anti-Communist thinkers such as Joseph McCarthy are tiptoed around, Roach opting instead to focus on Hollywood figures.

On the aesthetic face, lots of high-waisted trousers and charcoal fedoras help to amplify the time period. Pathé-esque newscasts look real — some are, such as one depicting a John F. Kennedy film critique (two thumbs up) — while Roach’s use of newspaper prints to relay the national agenda is a nifty touch. These visual styles culminate in a retro flavour that generates more authenticity; it’s no Carol, but it’s good. Vowels are even offloaded with deeper verve. Cranston’s Trumbo sounds like someone who once resided in one of those old, grainy video recordings from many decades past.

Screenwriter John McNamara has a lot to juggle content-wise so perhaps the hit-and-miss nature of Trumbo shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) arrive without warning as the film reaches its scattergraph finale, name-checking Kubrick and negotiating screen credits. The film is essentially a trivial overview of a much more interesting period in US and Hollywood history than is given credit. But Trumbo is wholly watchable and Cranston commendably holds the screen, amounting to a piece worth its papery weight in entertainment.

Trumbo - Cranston & Mirren

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Bleecker Street

Spotlight (2016)

★★★★★

Spotlight PosterDirector: Tom McCarthy

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); January 29th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber

At the inception of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, The Boston Globe newspaper is in the process of appointing its new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Despite this change, there remains a prevailing emphasis on ensuring the retention of local flavour. More than that actually; in upholding a local backbone prompted by the paper’s titular investigative team and its head man, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). The aforementioned Baron, blunt yet adept, arrives without any notion of hedonistic aplomb, a trait that reflects McCarthy’s exceptional outing as a whole.

Sometimes the film that resonates most is the one draped in assured, quality simplicity. Though some might disagree with the loftiness of my ranking, such simplicity is what endeared me so much to Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. And it’s a similar simple touch that paves the path for Spotlight, a film so rich and so thrilling. McCarthy directs with a stillness, allowing his actors to act and their words to burn into the audience’s psyche without distraction. This trust affords the Spotlight team — Baron, Robby, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradley Jr. (John Slattery), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all real life journalists who, at the turn of the millennium, took the Catholic Church to task over child abuse allegations — a platform to build their case.

Often, the camera diverts our attention towards battered notepads and scribbling hands, distinguishing the individual personalities within the team: tougher to read, Rezendes jots down notes underneath a table while interviewing a victim whereas Pfeiffer writes in plain view, her inclinations clearer and her projection softer. The former is a bundle of journalistic energy, constantly on the move and posing point-counterpoints. Rezendes is immensely dedicated to his craft — they all are, refreshingly — but perhaps more so to aiding the course of justice. He and Robby discuss the need for leisure time and Robby points out Rezendes’ only leisure time is his daily jog to work.

These reporters are studious, careful. They take their time to iron every crease, collating date from victims, legal papers and even Globe archives. It’s true investigative journalism executed with thoroughness, so much so that we feel drawn into the process. The tone is almost anti-Sorkin: there’s an air of justifiable caution on display here that Sorkin’s TV journalism jaunt The Newsroom bypassed in favour of addictive urgency. Both methods work, but the slower approach suits Spotlight’s sensitive subject matter far more (it also implores you to listen, therefore stretches of dialogue are easier to follow than those penned by Sorkin).

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer ground such a grand story in local truths — the religious corruption infects a familiar neighbourhood. In any other situation this sort of coincidence might feel contrived, but not here where the sheer breadth of wrongdoing is so painstakingly relayed. Locality doesn’t immunise the team from significant global events; it’s 2001 therefore 9/11 is unavoidable, especially since journalism is our vantage point, and the attack drives all resources away from the child abuse scandal. Gamesmanship between rival city papers further funds McCarthy’s realistic portrayal of the job. If those realities aren’t enough, the reporting process at least thrives on-screen. (Even the aesthetic fits the journalistic groove, tinged with a greyish palette that matches the occupational ambiguity. It feels like a newsroom; we even see a printing press in action.)

Much like The Big Short, which also follows a brand of unethical discovery, Spotlight pointedly plants its ballpoint on one side of the debate. “Knowledge is one thing. But faith, faith is another,” says Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), leader of the diocese, with more than a hint of guiltlessness. McCarthy and co. are not against Catholicism but rather the structural inadequacies of certain segments of the Church, and their evidence is inadmissible. The team announce their respective affiliations to the religion (very little), undermining accusations of bias and offering up a tiny slice of their otherwise unexplored personal lives. And that’s how it should be. After all, this is an investigation and investigations should, ideally, lack personality.

Forget stopping short at admonishing priests, lawyers are also targeted for their mistakes (Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup play immoral attorneys opposite Stanley Tucci’s more upstanding lawman). Nor does journalism itself receive a free pass. This is as much a celebration of the profession as anything else, but in order to celebrate there has to be a level of humility. We see political jousting both within the Globe offices and outwith, during which we learn of costly past mistakes. Ignorance is the main allegation and this honesty resonates, adding roundedness to these real life characters who are far from impervious to perfection.

Speaking of which, those in charge of casting ought to be acclaimed for amassing such terrific depth. Apart from a solitary outburst of pent-up rage from Rezendes, powerfully delivered by Ruffalo, the performances are universally restrained. They’re quietly indelible too: Schreiber displays an uncanny knack for convincing without extravagance while McAdams, nominated for an Oscar, bears a warmth free from condescension. Of everyone, Keaton is the one who oozes most occupational comfort (as he should, given he plays the group’s editor), his aura exceedingly knowledgeable.

For this to work, the Spotlight team have to purvey a sense of well-oiled camaraderie and they absolutely do. The same can be said for McCarthy’s film, though to speak of his work just in terms of proficiency would be demeaning. It is proficient; it’s also socially reflective and genuinely gripping. Holes are punched in great institutions with justification, but you won’t find any holes in the story. For all the right reasons, Spotlight may well make you fall in love with journalism.

Spotlight - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Open Road Films

The Big Short (2016)

★★★★

The Big Short PosterDirector: Adam McKay

Release Date: December 23rd, 2015 (US); January 22nd, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

The Big Short recalls the audacious actions of “a few outsiders and weirdos”, a group of like-minded money men who managed to accurately predict the 2008 global financial crash years in advance. Sure, it may not sound like the most enthralling venture, but it is. Adam McKay’s outing finds its footing somewhere between the maniacal antics of The Wolf of Wall Street and J.C. Chandor’s sobering Margin Call, lined with humour and born out of blood-boiling truth. Warning: it is a piece wholeheartedly set in its ways — if you are on the side of the bankers, this ain’t for you (nor, frankly, is decency).

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, real life hedge fund supremo and heavy metal lover. Eccentric, his brain scorched by numbers and spreadsheets (the film is based on a book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis and it shows), Burry spots a flaw in the structure of the American housing market and, since nobody will take his findings seriously, he opts to invest in said market’s eventual collapse. “This is Wall Street Dr. Burry. If you offer us free money, we’re going to take it,” says one Goldman Sachs representative with glee in her heart and cash in her eyes.

Following an industry-driven family tragedy, Mark Baum has more emotional investment that anyone in Burry’s prediction. Coaxed on by a prowling vendetta against the world, Steve Carell is terrific in the role (there’s not a bum note generally, but Carell is the stand out). You really get the sense this is a guy who wholly detests the fraudulent system, and you feel a shared sense of injustice. However, Baum’s attempt to profit from the system’s downfall — and by proxy the plight of millions of innocent livelihoods — eats away at him, this internal struggle projected with weariness by Carell’s bruised eyes.

Ryan Gosling offers his two (million) cents as the sort of guy who practices catchy lines under his breath in preparation for important meetings — this sets up a hilarious money smelling quip. Gosling is financial trader Jared Vennett, a dick, but a dick with a point. Another Burry believer, he often breaks the fourth wall to explain what’s going on, funding his smarmy exterior in the process. The straight-to-camera dialogue works because the film is relentlessly preaching to us anyway. He and Baum work together but are opposing forces in personality terms: Baum amusingly no-sells Vennett’s macho demeanour while Vennett takes no notice, only interested in his rising bank balance.

Of the four headline names, Brad Pitt has the quietest role: Ben Rickert, having been chewed up and spat out by the banking industry, now abides by a pseudo-apocalyptic philosophy (“Seeds are gonna be the new currency”). Rickert is cajoled by understudies Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Whittrock) and subsequently returns to the field as their unshowy mentor, won over by Burry’s cataclysmic pattern. The presence of Pitt affords some weight to an arc that might have otherwise felt inconsequential given its unoriginal through line — it gets caught in the shadow of the other two, more prominent narrative strands.

McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s screenplay admirably juggles all of these hefty personalities, men collectively singing from the same ledger, without homogenising them. Nor does the script hold its protagonists to some sort of impenetrable moral standard — after all, irrespective of their true target, these guys are actively seeking to profit from the misfortune of both rich bankers and struggling Americans. McKay and Randolph frequently add layers to the plot, though when the film threatens to go beyond our intellectual comprehension it is saved by offbeat explanatory segments (chartered by the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez playing themselves).

It is abundantly clear who the villains are and the film knows that. But The Big Short also recognised the need to remind us of the primary culprits and does so by throwing around masses of Wall Street jargon, creating a divide between the folk who speak said language on a daily basis and everybody else. These are people who deviously undercut their customers and then guffaw about doing so in the safety of luxury afterwards — Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen play the worst on-screen offenders, two mortgage brokers painted with broad strokes by necessity. They believe the joke is on everyone else when it’s obviously on them.

There are plenty of other jokes too, gags inspired by wit and executed with piercing zest (McKay and Randolph even manage to take a jab at artistic licence by openly owning up to small bouts of fabrication). This overarching smartness does alienate one small story section, namely the jarring appearance of a soon-to-be ailing homeowner. The film is too clever for something so blunt, especially given its tendency to avoid emotional manipulation elsewhere. You might argue the scene puts a face on the economic turmoil, but having lived through the crisis the audience will already be thoroughly aware of the consequences. It does at least serve up an eerie visual of a housing wasteland that evokes Chernobyl connotations.

Hank Corwin’s editing encourages a rampant effervescence that is more or less employed throughout; from an opening montage that outlines the inception of the disaster, to various images of music videos, celebrities, models, and cash spliced together — all symbols of corporate America, of the new American Dream sold by capitalism, a false dream. The choppiness can be a bit disorienting but it does induce urgency and even a degree of mess, fitting since it reflects the impending financial calamity.

As characters debate the legitimacy of Burry’s predictions the camera wanders freely between their faces, upholding both the kinetic energy of the fast-moving industry and said industry’s unpredictable nature. When all the desks have been cleared and all the cheques resentfully written, The Big Short unveils its prognosis: that those involved, the guilty bankers eventually given legal clearance, were either blindly stupid or corrupted by immorality. It is a sombre conclusion but one we always knew was coming. Having laughed a lot, you’ll leave angry — and you’re supposed to.

The Big Short - Steve Carell & Ryan Gosling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

The Danish Girl (2016)

★★★

The Danish Girl PosterDirector: Tom Hooper

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

Just like last year, Eddie Redmayne is spending his January up on cinema screens across the UK in a film about strong relationships and physical change. The Theory of Everything thrived upon its stars’ chemistry — Redmayne and Felicity Jones perfectly complemented each other as Mr. and Mrs. Hawking — and it is true that much of what is great about The Danish Girl revolves around its central pairing. Unfortunately, the film undercuts the dramatic potential of its subject matter (reality-based pioneering gender reassignment surgery). It shouldn’t be standard fare, but it is.

Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an artist who dresses up as a woman at the behest of his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and feels whole upon doing so. Einar evolves into Lili, first mentally and then physically, though Redmayne’s vulnerability remains steadily palpable throughout. The problem isn’t the actor; it won’t come as a surprise for you to learn he is good. Rather, it is the syrupy circus that surrounds him — those feather-light piano melodies that are enforced without any sort of careful restraint, and a screenplay absolutely swamped in fluffy dialogue (“My life, my wife”).

There is heartfelt delicacy, which is clearly what screenwriter Lucinda Coxon is going for, and then there is off-putting sentimentality, which is what she ends up with. Despite this, the film manages to celebrate two different kinds of femininity. Redmayne plays Lili with a soft evasiveness undoubtedly born out of her repressed identity. Gerda, on the other hand, appears battle-hardened, initially parading a boldness and then later genuine strength in the face of life-changing revelations. You have to believe in their relationship and its robustness in order to believe in the film on a very basic level, and you do because Redmayne and particularly Vikander sell their characters’ love authentically.

As Lili’s desire for personal correction ripens, the nuances of the two central roles are reversed and the narrative focus flips (at least it did for me). The Danish Girl starts to explore those hardships encountered by its other Danish girl, Gerda. Lili’s physical and mental anguish is plain to see and at times tough to consume, but we also must remember the major impact her situation is having on Gerda’s life too. Vikander takes us on an emotional roller coaster: pained, confused, sorrowful, empathetic. We watch just as she does, and we feel because she feels.

Like in Mr. Turner, art is used as a mode for exploration. That is until the film forgets about the art, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Securing one’s true lifestyle is far more important after all, but we do spend a fair chunk of time in plush museums and at fancy gatherings and around interesting paintings for the piece to avoid that stuff thereafter (the movie’s funniest moment transpires from Gerda painting a particularly uptight gentleman). To be fair, this move away from art is consistent with Lili’s mindset — she decides not continue her career upon finding her real self — though a visit to the easel every now and again would have been welcome for story continuity: how are the duo making enough money for travel and healthcare if only one of them is working?

Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen borrow from, of all people, Wes Anderson’s portfolio, at one point whimsically depicting a street of yellow bungalows side-on. It is a great shot, a single quirky page out of an otherwise standard picture book. Lili and Gerda’s house looks a bit like a charcoal painting, with shades of blue and grey adding little colour to the wooden floorboards and cracked walls — like the opening hour of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, of all films, it feels as though we are watching people interact on a carefully constructed set.

Todd Haynes’ Carol took on the social imbalance of 1950s New York and The Danish Girl similarly reflects a time when ‘to be different’ meant ‘to be insane’. We never really get into the nitty gritty of that though; the piece does seem to want to delve further into how Lili is affected by society’s petulance, opting to show an unprovoked attack and a couple of doctors’ misinformed diagnoses, though that is as far as it goes. Upon learning about a surgeon who might be willing to help Lili from one of Gerda’s clients (Amber Heard), any lingering backlash becomes non-existent.

Vikander aside, subtlety rarely features. Perhaps the subject matter requires as much, but an overly mushy screenplay lands the outing in cold water. The script also fails to carry the level of propulsion necessary to maintain two genuinely compelling hours. We enter more interesting territory when the spotlight is shone on Gerda and her struggles — a point at which Lili’s post-breakthrough self-obsession is admirably acknowledged (“Not everything is about you”) — but it isn’t really enough. Matthias Schoenaerts and Ben Wishaw freshen things up occasionally, though their roles do not carry any weight in the grand scheme of things.

I referred to a particularly amusing portrait painting scene earlier as a lone funny moment, but there is another unintentionally humorous façade: Lili (at this point still Einar) dresses up as a woman and attends an artist’s ball with Gerda. It’s like something out of a Superman comic: apart from a few close friends, nobody recognises the apparently popular landscape artist despite the astounding resemblance. Perhaps that is The Danish Girl in a nutshell: all too obvious and oddly difficult to comprehend.

The Danish Girl - Eddie Redmayne & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures

Bridge of Spies (2015)

★★★★★

Bridge of Spies PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Silence dominates the opening moments of Bridge of Spies. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is the target, tailed by a swarm of men wearing fedoras. The possible KGB operative remains stony-faced — his dirty nails suggesting foul play — as he retrieves a silver coin which, after much tinkering and magnifying, opens to reveal a tiny folded message. It’s the late-1950s and the Cold War is at its peak. The US is feeling the after-effects of the Rosenbergs. McCarthyism is rife. Trials and conspiracies dominate the landscape. Director Steven Spielberg even insists upon showing us the construction of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing chaos in Germany. It’s that kind of movie.

Back in the US, a country scarred mentally rather than physically by rising tensions, we meet lawyer James Donovan. Donovan is clearly a smart man, and we don’t simply know this because he’s being played by Tom Hanks; we also see him outwit a fellow professional during a metaphor-heavy conversation about bowling pins and tornadoes. He has a way with words, and reverberates a diplomacy that wholly fits his occupation. For this reason Donovan ends up defending Abel in court, a job his superior suggests will be straightforward given guilt is unequivocal. Simply put, “It’s a patriotic duty”. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose”, quips Donovan. It’s also that kind of movie.

See, Donovan is a beacon of ethical clarity in a murky world, and that’s why we endorse him with so much fondness. He relentlessly holds injustice to account in the name of his client despite the subsequent threat faced by himself and his family. It is right to defend a potentially wrong man, but is it feasible to do so under such conditions? Perhaps not, yet the upstanding advocate defends anyway. On the topic of family, Spielberg’s admiration and respect for children once again shines through during a talk between Donovan and his son — the latter, though young, hurdles naivety by understanding war is a possibility, and has intelligently worked out the potential radius of an atom bomb in preparation.

Bridge of Spies isn’t a boots-on-the-ground war film though. Rather, it is one that pits apparently important men around tables as they discuss the probability of battle without ever having to actively engage themselves. If anything, events on screen are propelled by a “war of information,” and we get lots of just that via high-stakes-cum-low-key rounds of dialogue. Donovan is at the centre of it all and often finds himself in no man’s land, devoid of support. He faces a grouchy judge in his quest for fairness, and a grouchy US too: locals stare at him with contempt when they realise he is the one defending the Soviet and Donovan unjustly becomes a rash on the domestic landscape.

That’s not how we see it though. Hanks offers more than just A-list reliability; he negotiates political wrinkles and unfair judgement with everyman aplomb. When two Americans face prosecution and trade deals are optioned, Hanks irons out any narrative complications with charm and a coherent tongue. There is nobody better at playing this type of role. On the opposing side, Mark Rylance affords Abel true mystery. The uncouth detachment that the infiltrator purveys could just be an act — he is a foreign agent, after all. But there is a constant kindness to Abel’s words, embodied by his “standing man” speech that reveals itself to be a masterclass in subtlety, beautifully delivered by Rylance.

A rustic production design blankets the movie in a 50s sheen. People use typewriters, wear grey trench coats, and smoke cigars. Yet there is an unavoidable modern truth at the fore too. “This Russian spy came here to threaten our way of life,” barks one particularly cheesed off American lawman, a statement that could easily be reshaped and applied to the climate of cultural blame within which we currently reside. Matt Charman and the Coen brothers’ screenwriting examines what borders mean in conjunction with matters of law (and, by proxy, matters of humanity). This forms another sturdy basis from which we can empathise with the characters on screen (Donovan, for instance, believes Abel has the right to a proper trial even though he isn’t an American citizen).

Spielberg harks back to Road to Perdition with his use of heavy rainfall, dripping umbrellas, and general murkiness. But also, oddly, bouts of light humour and fleeting courtroom trips recall Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. The Coen brothers’ screenplay inflections are those moments of dry comedy, generously spread throughout to loosen the dramatic belt while still giving room to the film’s weighty subject matter. Upon arrival in Germany for tetchy negotiations, Donovan takes up residence in a dingy apartment as his partners, conveniently unable to assist on the ground, are cosied up in the local Hilton hotel.

The gags are a treat, but the imminent possibility of peril seldom retreats. In fact, it grows stronger when we reach East Berlin; a shot from inside a train passing over the Berlin Wall highlights the difference between the fairly controlled west and the decimated east, forming a potential ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture for Donovan should he slip up and fuel the war bid. It is not as tense as, say, Sicario, but the threat of war does teeter on a knife edge and you can just about see each sway amongst the chilly mist.

Thomas Newman contributes a beautiful score that inspires and haunts as it reflects the changing landscapes: homely US, arctic Germany. In typical Spielbergian fashion, Newman’s score also tugs at our heartstrings, either through its grandiose scope (Saving Private Ryan occasionally springs to mind) or, as is the case towards the film’s conclusion, a simple piano melody. It almost goes without saying in 2015 but Spielberg himself is on fine form as he juggles a whole host of characters — Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch, and many more ably support — and a potentially tricky script with sure-fire handiness.

It’s not excessively complex filmmaking, nor is it in any way underfed. There is a clear start point, a clear end point (a lovely one at that), and an admirable confidence in the material. Bridge of Spies is a wonderful, eloquent piece of cinema, delivered by a directorial giant unafraid to promote the practice of principles, and actors who clearly cherish the process. It’s the kind of film that makes going to the pictures worthwhile. It’s that kind of movie.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Steve Jobs (2015)

★★★★

Steve Jobs PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); November 13th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels

That it has taken the combined efforts of a handful of cinema’s specialists to create a portrait of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, he himself a specialist in complexity, is somewhat fitting. Others have tried and subsequently missed the mark. Perhaps films such as Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs lacked the raw materials to match the man, languishing instead in a pit of shallow personification. Shallowness is certainly not a characteristic that Danny Boyle’s pseudo-biopic (it’s more of a triple snapshot than a life journey) can be accused of. For his direction supports a piercing Aaron Sorkin script, the screenwriter’s words delivered with panache by an in form Michael Fassbender.

Steve Jobs stalks two primary areas of its protagonist’s life: technology and family. Most of us are aware of his technological feats, but here we see the visionary fear familial commitment, something Sorkin demonstrates early on. Backstage before the 1984 Apple Macintosh launch — the first of three elongated launch sequences; the 1988 NeXT Computer and 1998 iMac unveilings are the others — we watch as Jobs coldly interacts with his young daughter Lisa (played by Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine depending on the era) and her mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

Brennan is disgusted at Jobs’ lack of humanity, that his daughter is living on benefits as his business thrives. The conversation switches to an earlier Apple product, the Lisa, and Jobs maintains his unflappable detachment by stressing that there is no titular connection between said machine and his child: “Nothing was named after you. It’s a coincidence”. We don’t believe the revelation, but emotional compromise isn’t how his mind functions. For a man whose existence is sustained via precision and calculation, coincidence doesn’t seem to fit. Perhaps that is why Jobs distances himself from his offspring; he cannot deal in uncertainty.

Sorkin temporarily counters this glacial mantra by having Jobs reel off other acts of kindness, but even those are wrapped up in a commercial blanket. Donating computers to schools for underprivileged kids (good publicity is great publicity after all), for instance. Meanwhile, only after a significant amount of pestering from Brennan does he agree to fund his own kid’s future. They somewhat bond after Lisa uses the Macintosh to doodle, a positive step born out the youngster taking an interest in something her father has created, and not vice-versa. It is a relationship that improves with time, Fassbender’s delicate touch increasingly indicating greater compassion.

There’s a shot around the halfway mark that is reminiscent of the one in Skyfall where techno-villain Raoul Silva can be seen ambling towards Bond from afar, camera frozen. Here, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, brilliantly recapturing his Newsroom malaise) adopts the role of Silva and Jobs of Bond, though it is part of an extended montage delivered with a kinetic, stylish drive. This is probably the most Danny Boyle-esque the film gets, as elsewhere the director sits back and lets Sorkin’s electric screenplay absorb us. An unrelenting barrage of words does mean the verbiage can occasionally be tough to follow, and instances of humour are rarely afforded time to breath, but it really is a wicked script.

Alwin H. Küchler’s fluid lens work invokes Dutch tilts and floats alongside Jobs, funding his unique air. People constantly fuss around him, his demands fortuitously sky high right before product launches. This takes a little suspension of disbelief — chances are he never faced such family drama prior to the Macintosh introduction — but you do eventually begin to believe the hype. The man is like a rock star, a faultless salesman, and an underhanded criminal mastermind all at once. The cult of Apple is apparent too, with staff members “oohing” and “ahhing” during practice sessions. We even see Jobs wash his feet in some sort of messianic ritual.

The inventor dips in and out of the company for various reasons as the film progresses. When he ends up back with Apple for the movie’s final third, the iMac inauguration, Jobs is at his most charismatic and humorous. Fassbender affords him a chirpier exterior, or so it seems, cracking jokes and congratulating staff members for fixing problems (this clearly mirrors an earlier scene during which he unfairly admonishes an employee). It’s worth pointing out at this point that following his performances both here and in Macbeth, Fassbender ought to start dusting off the awards circuit apparel. The Irish star captures Jobs’ imperfect allure, but it is how the actor wins our empathy that truly astounds.

The spikiness remains. Issues with his now teenage daughter arise again, and it becomes apparent that the entrepreneur’s success is directly related to his relationship with Lisa. When the latter is fractured, the former is non-existent. You get the sense Jobs has spent a career over-egging one rather than focussing on both, and he realises it too: “What you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you,” says close confidant Joanna Hoffman (a wonderful Kate Winslet), often the mediator between calm and crisis. The three time-sensitive snapshots collectively tell a succinct story and, though they are a tad repetitive, watching the layers unravel is a rewarding experience.

Daniel Pemberton delivers a technologically-infused score that sounds, oddly, like the Jaws theme sped up with light beeps replacing dense strokes. A Zimmer-like quality looms large late on, reflecting our central figure’s faux-heroic transformation. Camera filters change with each passing season, incorporating both rustic woodiness and a crisp sheen. The surrounding textures alter too — plastics make way for glass as the old oblong age evolves into a pre-Millennium new age that favours smoothness (see the difference between the rectangular Macintosh and the curved iMac).

Steve Jobs’ world makes sense to him but nobody else, and the film clearly expresses that. There are verbal jousts too with former partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), most of which highlight Jobs’ ignorance. But this is not a hatchet job. It is not a character assassination. Boyle’s picture is instead a contained examination of a convoluted man, a piece that refrains from taking sides and, in truth, never really suggests there were any sides to take in the first place.

Steve Jobs

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures